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The Era of Big Government Is Back—Or Did It Ever Leave? (Forbes.com) February 5, 2015

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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When President Obama introduced his mammoth $4.4 trillion budget this week, he effectively announced that the era of big government is back.  Even his fellow Democrat, Bill Clinton, had famously proclaimed in 1996 that “the era of big government is over.”  This followed Ronald Reagan’s warning in 1981 that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

But apparently Obama sees limited government as so last century.  Instead he proposes $2.1 trillion in new tax increases and spending increases of 7% over the current sequestration caps.  This accelerates the recent track on which government spending has risen 63% faster than inflation over the past 20 years.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi jumped to the President’s defense, saying there is a direct connection between higher federal spending and bigger paychecks for Americans.  So a clash is looming between Democrats’ idea of government spending leading to greater prosperity and the Republican approach of giving people back more of their own money to spend the way they choose.

At a deeper level, however, Republicans and Democrats aren’t really arguing over bigger versus smaller government.  It’s really more of a question of “how much bigger” will government become.  For example, a widely accepted measure of government size is the amount of federal spending as a percentage of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP).  That number was around 2-3% from the Founding through the New Deal, except for significant spikes during wartime.  Then beginning with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, that figure grew steadily to 20%, peaking during World War Two at 41.5%.  It dipped following the war, but then resumed its steady rise, dropping some during the peace dividend years of the 1980’s and 1990’s, but rising again now to nearly 25%.  Projections show dramatic growth in the coming decades when the Baby Boomers jump on the entitlement train, living off Social Security and Medicare, or what’s left of it.

So the size of government debate is really between big and bigger, not big and smaller.   With the exception of one brief period in the Reagan administration, government size and spending grow steadily larger.  Yes, it’s true that progressive Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama kicked it up a notch during their administrations, but Republicans haven’t historically done much about actually shrinking government.  In fact, neoconservatives and big government Republicans during the George W. Bush administration essentially changed their rhetoric away from smaller government, arguing instead that the goal should be using big government for conservative ends.   It’s as if Republicans have, perhaps grudgingly, acknowledged that big government is here to stay.

What is Republicans’ goal then, simply slowing the rate of increase?  Yes, and that is important with all the built-in entitlement increases looming, but it’s actually broader than that.  The debate is also about whether the economy is better strengthened by more taxes and spending in Washington, or by returning money to the people to spend.  It’s about whether the federal government should reach into more areas of our lives, taking over K-12 education, healthcare and the environment, areas that used to belong to state and local government.  As Lyndon Johnson’s chief domestic policy advisor Joseph Califano later admitted about the Great Society of the 60’s:  “The government simply got into too many nooks and crannies of American life.”  It’s about the growth of federal regulation and rulemaking, which is at an all-time high.

Conservatives would do better to focus on “limited government” as their plea, rather than smaller government.  Unlike a smaller federal government, that goal is both realistic and important.

Link to Forbes.com:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2015/02/04/the-era-of-big-government-is-back-or-did-it-ever-leave/

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